In the past few weeks, the township of Diepsloot, with a population of more than 350 000 inhabitants, has been a no-go area for foreign nationals because of the protests triggered by the murder of police officer Oupa Matjie by criminals suspected to be of Zimbabwean nationality.
As community leaders organised and mobilised for the shutdown on January 23, their call was to demand police assistance in ridding the township of undocumented immigrants, whom they allege are responsible for most of the crime in the area.
“We do not have a problem with documented immigrants. What we want is that police help us to rid Diepsloot of undocumented foreign nationals,” argued one of the leaders on eNCA’s morning news bulletin on January 24.
Probed further by a journalist to clarify why they blame foreigners for the criminality, yet another community member said: “We know them, we live with them. They break into our houses at night and rape us. They also kill police officers, as happened a few days ago.”
In one of the videos circulated on social media, police are seen roughing up some of the suspects. Towards the end of the clip, an angry police officer states, “… we must just declare war on Zimbabweans”.
The tone of these comments, however, should be understood within their proper context. The present lay of the land is such that criminal cases involving foreign nationals are on the rise, and urgently need to be curbed.
Recently, our country experienced violent xenophobic attacks directed at fellow Africans. These attacks have been condemned by both South Africans and internationally.
The Diepsloot demonstration had the potential to trigger another round of xenophobic attacks. This did not happen. Demonstrators took special care to emphasise that they were demonstrating, not against foreign nationals in general, but against undocumented foreign nationals in particular.
They demanded to be addressed by the minister of police and wanted him to give a clear strategy on how police will deal with the situation. Even though the Diepsloot demonstration disrupted business, it was less destructive in terms of property and infrastructure damage than previous incidents.
In short, the demonstration broke with the past and went straight to the crux of the matter — crimes committed by undocumented people. It was no surprise the police and home affairs ministers availed themselves without delay.
Because of the way the Diepsloot shutdown event unfolded, we find ourselves confronted by a question that we can no longer ignore. How, as foreign nationals living in South Africa, do we deal with criminality that can be positively associated with our fellow citizens?
This is not to suggest that documented migrants, or South African citizens, do not commit crime. It is to say that we can no longer claim that nationality does not matter in crime prevention. With an increase in violent crime and the logical and dignified demand by Diepsloot demonstrators, it will soon become unsustainable to suggest that profiling a suspect in terms of his/her nationality is unnecessary. Fears of xenophobia will not suffice as a shield against the isolation and identification of criminals of foreign origin.
This now calls for foreign nationals resident in South Africa, whether documented or not, to take an active interest in fighting criminality committed by their fellow travellers in order to preserve their good name. We should now ask ourselves how we can negate the criminal mentality among our fellow countrymen and women, who undoubtedly are in the minority. Three quick suggestions come to mind.
First, foreign nationals need to acknowledge that the profiling of criminals in terms of their nationality is increasingly becoming a necessity.
A criminal whose identity, and biometrics are known, whose possible place of residence is on record, is a step closer to a police cell, than one whose records do not exist.
Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, or any other national resident in South Africa need to be aware of the extent to which their countrymen and women are involved in criminal activities. This will not only encourage them to be involved in programmes and activities that seek to negate criminality, but also to dissuade them from being sucked into the criminal underworld.
Second, embassies and consulates in South Africa need to take an active approach in communicating with their citizens.
It cannot be that an embassy is only of use in as far as facilitating the transmission of forms and documents between the diaspora and the home capital. Consular services should extend to answer the socio-economic questions if neighbourly coexistence with the host country is to be sustained.
It does not help for them to be confined in their office spaces, waiting for people to come and seek their services.
Embassies need to participate in outreach programmes that are aimed at skilling and empowering their citizens in South Africa, whether documented or not.
Thirdly, in conjunction with these different embassies, the South African department of home affairs should, in a controlled and responsible manner, ease the process of regularising foreign nationals already in South Africa.
It is not helpful to maintain the current distance between an undocumented foreigner and law enforcement agencies. This only makes the work of law enforcement agencies tougher.
If anything, the Zimbabwe and Lesotho documentation initiatives that the department of home affairs conducted a few years back, were a good start that should have been sustained.
Criminality knows no nationality, class, race nor gender. Thus, it is to the benefit of all of us, especially foreign nationals resident in South Africa, to play an active role in maintaining and preserving law and order. It is also us, better equipped with the cultural tools. who should rehabilitate those among us who have chosen criminality as a way of life.
Let us come out of our comfort enclaves and join forces with law enforcement institutions.
Dr Zenzo Moyo is a political analyst who works as a researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection in Johannesburg. These are his own views